Chicago Board of Ed: Downsized headquarters, supersized contract, and military school

December 19, 2013

WBEZ/Bill Healy

Chicago’s school board approved a number of measures at the monthly board meeting Wednesday:

New district headquarters

District CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett told board members that five years of cutbacks have shrunk the district’s central office staff by 34 percent, and CPS is operating in more space than it needs.

Byrd-Bennett compared the need to downsize to the closing of 50 schools. “Both the underutilization of schools and the underutilization of central office have stretched our limited resources. We could not continue to throw money after half-empty schools,” she told board members. “And likewise, we can no longer afford to support a half empty building here at 125 S. Clark.”

Byrd Bennett said the district looked at 86 options and determined that moving around the corner to three floors on 1 N. Dearborn was the best one. A district press release says CPS will save $60 million over 15 years by moving.

Logistics contract triples

The board also approved a significant increase in the amount it is paying to empty out Chicago’s closed schools.

The original moving  and logistics contract with Global Workplace Solutions, inked in April, was for $8.9 million. But as WBEZ first reported, the contract was quietly amended in September and increased to $18.9 million. The new contract could be for up to three times the original amount—$30.9 million.

District officials say that despite the overruns on the logistics contract, the overall cost of closing a historic number of schools will remain within budget—$78 million this year, not including capital costs. (In addition to the logistics contract, the $78 million includes things like “principal transition coordinators” who were assigned to help ease the transition between closing and receiving schools and “integration” events for the consolidating schools.)

“We’ve been able to move things around—as we discovered—a little bit more here,  a little bit less there, so it’s gonna end up in balance,” CPS school closings czar Tom Tyrrell explained to board members.

Tyrrell said there’s an “emerging requirement that is time sensitive” to board up and secure more schools than the district initially thought would be necessary. He says the district is avoiding costs for new books and furniture by repurposing items from closed schools, but that takes investment to inventory and sort items on the front end.

Ames Middle School’s conversion to a military academy high school is approved

In an unusual divided vote, the school board voted 5-2 to approve a controversial plan to change Ames middle school to a military academy affiliated with the U.S. Marine Corps.

Alderman Roberto Maldonado was the plan’s key backer, and he made his final case before board members at the meeting, saying he had worked to “scientifically verify”—with a telephone poll of 300 residents—that there was overwhelming support for his plan.

Ames Middle School is currently unpopular, he said, with just half of nearby kids electing to go there.

Maldonado presented himself as both a peace activist and a supporter of the military and military schools. He said he had protested the Viequez military base in Puerto Rico, and he promised that the new school would “not be a training ground for sending our children to enlist in the military when they graduate.” But he also brought fellow Alderman James Balcer—a Marine Corps vet—to speak in favor of the school. “Sempre fidelis,” Balcer said at the end of his statement.

“Ames is a beautiful campus and it’s perfect expanded into a high school for the kids of that community so that they will have an opportunity to go to college,” said Maldonado. “I want my kids—the children from my community that look like me, brown faces that look like me—to have an opportunity to go to college.”

Ames parents begged the school board to listen to parents, not politicians. They said the alderman has disparaged Ames. One mother, Emma Segura, held a tape recorder up to the microphone and played a voicemail message:

 

"Hello, the Chicago Public Schools recently sent a letter about moving your child to Ames Middle School, a gang infested school at Armitage and Hamlin, up to two miles away.

They say your school is too crowded, so the only choice is to move your child to Ames, a gang-infested school where all students must go through a metal detector every morning. There’s a public hearing Monday, April 15, at Schurz High School, at 5pm.

This is the only chance to voice opposition to moving your child to gang-infested Ames Middle School, at Armitage and Hamlin, where all students must go through a metal detector every single morning. If you can attend this hearing, please press 7.

If you’d like someone to follow up with a phone call to give you more information, please press 8. Thank you."

Maldonado’s office denies any connection to that call.

The conversion of Ames will push some middle school kids to Kelvyn Park High School. Ames parents said that’s no place for younger kids.

Board members Carlos Azcoitia and Mahalia Hines opposed Ames’ conversion to a military school.

Lincoln Elementary annex moves forward

The board also approved an $18 million annex to Lincoln Elementary in Lincoln Park. The annex is controversial because it puts Lincoln, with well-heeled and politically connected parents, ahead of dozens of other schools that by CPS’ own standards are more overcrowded. Parents and community members who oppose the annex—because it snatches up part of the playground and calls for a much larger school, or because they believe other schools are needier —have argued the district could solve the overcrowding problem at Lincoln by adjusting the attendance boundaries of nearby schools.

Alderman Michele Smith told board members the need for the annex was “indisputable,” and that she was “embarrassed and astounded” by those who opposed it.  Smith said redrawing boundaries would “force students out of this outstanding school.”

Board members regularly hear testimony from overcrowded schools on the northwest and southwest sides, many surrounded by other schools in the same situation. Parents from those schools have argued that their children deserve an addition as much as kids from Lincoln Park.

Board president David Vitale said overcrowding was “an issue that will continue to plague us.

“The resources are in fact limited; the complexity of prioritizing is difficult,” Vitale said in closing the meeting. “But I have visited these schools, I visited Canty, I sat in that auditorium while kids ate their lunch. And there’s nobody more than me that would like to solve their problem. But we need to go through a proper prioritization process and spend the resources we have in the best way possible.”

The district’s 10-year Master Facilities Plan, passed in September, was supposed to do that.

Vitale says he hopes for a clearer prioritization process by the time the district draws up its next capital budget, which will be within the next six months.

Linda Lutton is a WBEZ education reporter. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation.